Where are all the depressing American sitcoms?

If you want to see reality in multi-camera format, you have to come back across the pond to the UK


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The stars of Three’s Company. Pixabay: 272447

Perhaps there’s something to be said about the old trite maxim (double tautology noted) that Americans are positive go-getters and the Brits grumpy fuddy-duddies. We don’t like generalising at the best of times, but when you compare Scrubs to Black Books or Brooklyn Nine-Nine to The Inbetweeners or New Girl to Peep Show it does seem to be rather true: Americans love a happy ending, and us Brits? We just want to see people who are as miserable as we are.

But why is this the case? Can it really be true that the American public yearns for escapism so badly they don’t want to see their own lives reflected on the screen, and the British hate themselves so much that’s all they want to see? Or is it more that Americans find pleasure in other people’s joy, and the British in the pain of someone you might pass by on the street? Stephen Fry said it rather nicely (as if he ever says anything badly): the ‘life is improvable’ mindset of Americans (personified in the American comic hero) stems from the country’s Protestantism, in which one is constantly attempting to be better and get closer to God. This feeling survives in the still-ultra-religious USA of today, which also just so happens to be the world’s foremost superpower. The British comic hero, in contrast, is beset on all sides by the failure and embarrassment of his country and, by extension, himself:

They are a failure. They are an utter failure. They’re brought up to expect empire, and respect, and decency, and being able to wear a blazer in public, and everyone around them just [makes a razz]. Whereas the American hero… can wisecrack their way out of any situation, they win the girl, they’re smarter, they’ve got the biggest knob in the room. The British guy arrives in the room and says ‘oh my God, I’ve left my knob behind.’… In a sense, comedy is the microcosm that allows us to examine the entire difference between our two cultures. Ours is bathed in failure, but we make a glory of our failure, we celebrate it… [American comic heroes] aren’t characters at all; they’re just brilliant repositories of fantastic, killer one-liners.

Is he right? Who knows. American optimism at least was a thing, even if the advent of Trump’s election (and probable re-election) led the New Statesman to write that American optimism is dead. Perhaps American belief in self-improvement, in progress, has been shattered by Trump’s disingenuous, lie-riddled machismo, by the acknowledgement that shit, yes, this world can unironically take several steps backwards after having made at least a couple forwards in recent memory. Maybe Americans have finally cottoned on to the fact that the American Dream is a lie and life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

But if that’s the case, where are all the depressing sitcoms? American sitcoms don’t generally reflect the realities of life, even if in some of their specifics they are realistic. Scrubs’s medical jargon and ‘what’s it like’ of working in a hospital was widely praised while the series aired, but where is the realism of Eliot staying with Sean, JD not getting a dream Chief of Medicine job at another hospital, and of not spending enough time with his kid? Brooklyn Nine-Nine deals pretty sensitively with a lot of heavy topics, including police brutality and sexuality, but where is the reality in which Jake doesn’t get Amy, where Rosa actually does die in the firefight? Even New Girl harnesses some good writing to make emotionally intricate characters while it toys with sitcom tropes. But Jess still gets Nick, and Nick gets Jess, and while there’s a friends-style ‘leaving the flat moment’, it’s with the nostalgic sadness of parting that the show ends, rather than the depressing realities of life. What I’m asking is, why does Rachel always have to get off the plane? In a British sitcom, the comic lead wouldn’t even bother trying to call her.

The reality for working- or middle-class people, for Millennials and Zoomers especially, is that life won’t go as well as it does for these people. Worse than that, much of what these sitcoms do is make you feel bad about yourself that you don’t have what they have. Where is my Turk?, a generation of lonely men cry. With loneliness among young people at an all-time high (and particularly straight men have a problem maintaining friendships with anyone but their partners, and particularly with other men), as well as inequality being higher than ever before even as rents skyrocket, you know that scenes of four pals living together in an apartment loft in LA simply aren’t representative of the living situations of most people. (Particularly aggravating is the running joke about nothing in the flat working and its inhabitants being poor, as if that gorgeous loft apartment would be affordable for a bartender and a teacher. Give me a break.)

This is why there’s something so appealing about Peep Show — the knowledge that Mark and Jez are a closer depiction of reality than Rachel or Jess could ever be. There’s definitely an argument to be made that Peep Show and The Inbetweeners are too cringe and pessimistic, as was The Office, for example — but everyone who’s worked in an office knows a David Brent, caricature as he may be; and anyone jobless or working a dead end office job in the suburbs of England knows just what it’s like to hate your roommate and have your dreams consistently dashed by life. And as for lonely young-ish men? David Brent’s two best friends are both colleagues and both entirely insufferable. Mark and Jez’s mutual hatred leads to most main plot lines of Peep Show being them torturing one another. Bernard Black’s main character trait, aside from his smoking and drinking, is his misanthropy and loneliness. Even the four boys who bond in The Inbetweeners, while they have friendships with one another, only rarely reach level deeper than sex jokes and back-and-forth abuse. And all of this is far closer to the reality of life than is suddenly becoming best mates with someone who treated you like dirt in school just because they come running into your local haunt after having jilted their fiancé.

Perhaps it’s just the old English misanthrope in me that identifies so profoundly with Bernard Black’s squalor and hatred of everything, and perhaps it would be a bit better to be a people-person, like Jessica Day. But the point is this —an American sitcom which is representative of life, and doesn’t just brush over the harshness of reality with a sentimental happy ending, is very much needed in our bizarre, lonely, depressing, unequal times. Community tried a little, but got too caught up in its own meta-ness. Black-ish is still going, and has understandably been lauded for its insights into race and cultural issues. Even Bojack Horseman, the most depressing sitcom of all time, for which I had such high hopes of a tragic ending, decided to redeem all of its characters, to give even its eponymous protagonist a chance at happiness. The one example I can think of is Arrested Development, and maybe that’s why I keep returning to it — because even though they’re rich, and even though there are some sentimental bits which remind you you’re watching an American sitcom, in the end, nothing ever works out for them. And that’s what life’s really like, isn’t it?

Peter Hitchens once told me I have no sense of humour. Twitter/Insta: @JamesMAlston Bookstagram: @thebibliographer

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